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No. 7 Texas 57, Texas Tech 7: Three things from Steve Sarkisian

On the Longhorns pass defense, “Embracing the Hate,” and fulfilling one of Sarkisian’s big goals after arriving on the Forty Acres.

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

AUSTIN, Texas — In one of the program’s most dominant conference performances over the last several decades, the No. 7 Texas Longhorns went out in style on Friday night at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in a resounding 57-7 win over the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the final Big 12 home game.

The Longhorn Network’s Alex Loeb summed up the win’s historic nature, both in terms of margin of victory, but also how complete it was as a performance:

Here are three things from Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian after the game.

The Longhorns pass defense stepped up

Heading into Friday’s game against the Red Raiders, the Longhorns run defense had dominated the previous five contests, holding those opponents to 236 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown on 123 carries (1.9 yards per carry), including nine yards on 22 carrie for the Cyclones last week in Ames.

But in making opponents one-dimensional, the Texas pass defense struggled to hold up against teams desperately trying to get back into games through the air, allowing more than 300 passing yards in four of those five contests with Donovan Smith leading Houston back with 378 passing yards and three touchdowns.

And while star Texas Tech running back Tahj Brooks was able to find some success on the ground on Friday with 19 carries for 95 yards, the Texas pass defense turned in its best performance of the season, allowing 88 passing yards on 36 attempts (2.4 yards per attempt) and coming up with a season-high three interceptions on a dismal night for Red Raiders quarterback Behren Morton, whose most notable play was arguably his business decision to allow Longhorns linebacker Jett Bush to finish his interception return with a touchdown to make it 50-7 late in the third quarter.

“I thought defensively we were awesome tonight,” said Sarkisian. “I thought one thing that stood out, we played the ball really well in the back end. A couple of those interceptions were terrific plays on the sidelines on kind of tight throws and tight coverage. We were really tight in coverage on third down, guys knocking balls down, and then the pass rush was was still very effective.”

Despite losing senior cornerback Ryan Watts to injury on the first play from scrimmage, freshman cornerback Malik Muhammad recorded his first career interception on a jump ball and sophomore cornerback Terrance Brooks made a difficult diving play for his third interception of the season, tying the team high. Texas broke up six passes total in addition to recording two sacks and nine quarterback hurries.

This team truly “Embraced the Hate”

Entering the program’s final season in the Big 12, Sarkisian had a clear-eyed understanding of what Texas would face, putting an offseason and preseason emphasis on “embracing the hate” and responding to the challenges posed by opponents giving the Longhorns their best shot.

Commissioner Brett Yormark made that task more simple for Friday’s game against the Red Raiders with his preseason comments to Texas Tech head coach Joey McGuire imploring him to “take care of business” against Texas once again after last year’s overtime win in Lubbock.

Sarkisian acknowledged the challenges of public speaking, his understanding that those events are recorded with media present, and that Yormark was playing to the partisan crowd, but he certainly wasn’t past using it to motivate his team.

“Man, we’ll take anything we can get to fire our guys up,” said Sarkisian. “So I kind of thanked him for the video.”

Whether it was Yormark’s comments, McGuire reminding his team in Lubbock that he’d told them Texas would fold, or Iowa State offensive lineman Jarrod Hufford’s comments before last week’s game, the the Longhorns clearly used it all for motivation to close out the regular season.

“We have to embrace that we’re the University of Texas and we can’t continue to sit back and just take punches from everybody and not fight back. And I think that our team has adopted that, and so when you poke the bear, that should strike up some some things down inside of us to not just play good on Saturdays and Fridays or whatever night we’re playing on, but also in our preparation — that should make us want to focus even more in meetings, that should make us want to practice even harder, that should make us want to get the details right in the things that we do so that when we get our opportunity, we can play at a really high level,” said Sarkisian.

On Monday, the Texas head coach said that he wanted his team to put on a show for Yormark, who was in attendance on Friday. They did.

“I think DKR was on fire. It was a great show of what Texas Longhorn nation is all about and it was an awesome night. I think our kids played tremendous and I’m hopeful that’s how he remembers his time here coming to a game at DKR, that that’s the environment that he saw and that’s the quality of team that he saw.”

The win helped fulfill some of Sarkisian’s goals after taking over the program

When Sarkisian arrived on the Forty Acres from Alabama nearly three years ago, Texas was in the midst of its worst decade in program history, one that began with the Mack Brown era rapidly disintegrating with the 5-7 season in 2010 only months after losing to the Crimson Tide in the national championship game. Brown only lasted three more years until he was ousted and replaced by Charlie Strong, who was fired after going 16-21 in his three seasons. A 10-win season and a Sugar Bowl win over Georgia in Tom Herman’s second year seemed to auger the Longhorns returning to the national spotlight, but a coaching staff reset, the pandemic, and enough torched relationships around the program ended his tenure after four seasons.

Sarkisian’s redemption arc brought him to Austin with an embrace of the program’s high standard amid questions about whether he was ready to do what he’d never done before as a head coach — win 10 games in a season and truly compete for championships.

At 11-1 and with a berth in the Big 12 Championship game earned on Friday night, Sarkisian had an opportunity to reflect on his program’s journey as his third season provided clear answers to those questions.

“I think it’s very gratifying. We came here when I accepted this job, and I’ve told you guys this before, but I think it’s important — I didn’t accept this job just to be a head coach again,” said Sarkisian. “I felt like at that point in my career, I knew I would be one again. But I took this job because I felt like we could be champions here and we could win championships year after year and whatever that would look like, but at least put ourselves in position to do that.”

In Sarkisian’s first season, however, the Horns regressed from 7-3 under Herman to 5-7, missing a bowl game for the first time since 2016, the year Strong was fired. An up-and-down 2022 season saw Texas improve to 8-5 with a chance to make the Big 12 Championship game on the final week of the season, but forced to rely on Kansas beating Kansas State to secure a trip to Arlington. The Jayhawks fell short.

So the emphasis this season was controlling the team’s own destiny. The loss to Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl was a set back that caused Sarkisian to tell his team that every week was a championship game, an approach echoed publicly every week by team leaders like senior nickel back Jahdae Barron.

“Now I as I told the team Monday morning when I put it up, this is a Big 12 Championship championship game now, it actually is, we’re finally here, and so to be 11-1 at a place like this, this is kind of where I felt like we should be and I recognize that at the University of Texas there’s high expectations and there’s a high standard of what excellence looks like. But our internal expectations, my internal expectations, are that and all the way above and that’s what we came here to do and now we put ourselves in position to go do it and like I said, it feels great, it’s wonderful, but the work’s not done.”